3 November 2010
Dr Marie Lall
(Former Chatham House Expert)


November 7 is a seminal day in Burmese history as the country goes to the polls for the first time in 20 years. In the run up much has been happening internally. New political parties have been created and old parties have re-registered. On the day 37 will contest the polls. Campaigning started months ago and has intensified over the last few weeks; even campaign leaflets have been dropping out of taxis. Grassroots and civil society organisations have been preparing citizens for governance with educational programmes and training potential politicians about their roles, expectation and duties. The first major change - politics is legal again.

The second major change will be structural with a military junta being replaced by a presidential system, two houses of parliament and state/ region based legislatures. Whilst the centre is likely to be controlled by the pro-regime parties - not least due to a 25% reservation of seats for the military and the pre-election uneven playing field - the regional and state legislatures will see some form of power sharing with ethnic parties with the potential for real change on the ground.

In many rural constituencies the choice will be restricted to the USDP, the pro-regime party, and the NUP, the party representing the regime which ruled the country before 1988. Whilst the NUP is often dismissed as 'pro-regime' this is not the case. The NUP is unlikely to ally with democratic parties. However it is not only set to beat the USDP in many constituencies, giving it real power at a national level, it is also likely to take a different stand to the current regime on many issues, starting with land owning rights for the peasants. The third major change is that the political game today is not between the regime and the democratic forces, with the advantaged stacked for the regime - it is a tri-partite game which is likely to change local politics beyond recognition.

New challenges and difficulties will arise once the elections are over. Parties, both pro and anti-regime will have to learn to work with each other. Those elected will have to learn how to govern, take difficult decisions and not focus on hierarchy or prestige. The new structure will have to address the grievances of an impoverished population starting with reform of the dilapidated economy. National reconciliation between ethnic minority representatives and the majority Bamar population will have to be kick-started. Most importantly, there must be a process of convergence between those who support the elections and those who are against them. Pro-democracy hardliners in the country have called for a boycott of the polls leading to the situation where pro-democracy organisations and their overseas supporters are actually standing against the first election in 20 years.

On the other side of the spectrum the growing urban middle class, made up of business people, social and political leaders, want to make the best out of a bad situation. For them the first step in the right direction is the structural change the elections promise. Despite being fed up with the status quo, they are vilified by the pro-democracy forces both inside and outside the country. The mistrust between the military and the pro-democracy movements is rock solid. But the divide between those who want the country to move on and those, both inside the country and outside, who want to wait for a just system is widening.

So is the anger of those who see themselves held hostage to exile politics they see supported by western governments acting out of their depth: 'International organizations, lobbyists and exiled activists, plus western governments and their politicians, really do not want to give up this impasse, for it is the band wagon they can so easily get on and get such great returns with so little effort or investment.' Says a voice from inside who spent years in jail under this regime. The schism in society runs deep and is not helped by protests such as the recent call to a ballot burning exercise in front of the Myanmar embassy in London.

The elections are the first step out of the impasse between the military and the wider population. The democratic hardliners are today fewer in number and are more likely to meet popular indifference than to lead any popular protest movement, even should Aung San Suu Kyi be released soon.

Further resources

Burma Elections: Voting, but not as we know it
Ashley South, The World Today, November 2010